Umberto Eco, the Italian writer and philosopher, died yesterday.
Fifteen years ago, I read The Island of the Day Before. It was a beautiful, thoughtful book, and I wrote the author a letter with no real hopes he would ever receive it.
And yet I remember opening the mailbox and finding the letter, postmarked Bologna. Just a few sentences, and his signature. I remember the rest of the afternoon also, with strange clarity, where I was and who I was with.
Few artist deaths bother me. It's just how it goes, and we are fortunate to be left with their body of work, whatever that is.
But Eco was a literary rockstar and an intellectual giant, and in April of 2001 I was 24 years old. His letter was brief, but it was also a wonderful recognition that what an artist makes, and how it is received, are two different things. That art can take on meaning beyond its creator's intention.
" ... a perceptive reader can react to a book, and give the author a lot to think about what the books says (sometimes beyond the author's intentions of [sic] expectations)."
Eco was best known for The Name of the Rose, a historical mystery which was eventually turned into a movie starring Sean Connery. He wrote Foucault's Pendulum, an intricate and masterful story that bears striking resemblance to The Da Vinci Code, just published about two decades ahead of Dan Brown's work. He wrote essays on war and life, and penned novels that question existence and the meaning of pop and commercial culture.
But the book which hooked me was The Island of the Day Before, the tale of a sailor (who cannot swim) shipwrecked within sight of an island. His memories and ruminations on life become the canvas for ideas to be examined.
That was my thinking, anyway. Perhaps Eco was politely telling me I was crazy, had missed his whole point. Or maybe he was saying, his own point wasn't so important either.
His letter stuck with me. That he'd taken the time to write. That my letter had somehow reached him. That he would consider someone else's thoughts about his own work.
"After sternly calculating these possibilities (admitting that life was short, art long, opportunity instantaneous and experiment uncertain), he told himself it was unworthy of a gentleman to be daunted by such petty calculations, like a bourgeois computing the odds he had staking at dice his greedily hoarded wealth.
To be sure, he then said, a calculation must be made, but it must be sublime if the stakes are sublime. What was he gambling in this wager? His life."
--The Island of the Day Before
RIP Umberto Eco.